You know that thing when you find a really great kids’ hairdresser that has really fun seats for the kids to sit in, films on a screen to keep them entertained AND a little play area, and you all love it so much because the hairdressers are so gentle with the kids and they have glitter hairspray for the girls, gel for the boys, lollipops once they’re done, and you’re paying at the counter thinking, “this is a great find! We are going to come here all the-“ and then two little white girls emerge from the changing room in blackface, wearing huge black afro wigs and accentuated red lips, and they start handing out little biscuits, and you look around and see golliwog dolls here and there and then you think OH SHIT MY KIDS’ NEW HAIRDRESSER IS REALLY FUCKING RACIST? You know that that thing? With the blacked-up children? And the golliwog dolls? That thing at the hairdressers? With the…. with the racist caricatures?
Hi. This is my first Sinterklaas season in Amsterdam.
You might not be familiar with the order of seasonal proceedings here in the Netherlands, so here it is. Sinterklaas – precursor to Santa, in ecclesiastic garb – arrives into the Netherlands by boat from Spain at some point in the second half of November. He is accompanied by Piet, his helper. They hang out in town for a few weeks until the 5th December, when children all over the Netherlands receive their gifts from the big white-bearded man. Piet’s job has changed over the years; he used to carry a bag to take naughty children back to Spain. He also carried birch twigs in order to give naughty children a thrashing. The last couple of generations have seen a friendlier Piet; acrobatic, jovial, generous; doling out pepernoten to children who gather to greet Sinterklaas into their city. Oh, and also his full name is Zwarte Piet, which means Black Pete, and for more than a century, he has looked something like this:
I know: WOAH, right? Blackface. Zwarte Piet the black servant of old, white Sint. And an increasing number of people across the globe have problems with this annual explicit depiction of a white master and his black slave, which is getting in the way of the fun times. Because many Dutch people, even in progressive Amsterdam, will tell you that Piet is black because he goes down the chimney. Its soot! That’s why his hair is black and fuzzy too. Soot is very drying. That’s why people with oily skin use those charcoal face masks. And as for the big red lips, well – allergies, I guess?
“So now I have to find a new hairdresser,” I say to a fellow Brit over tea the day after my first Zwarte Piet encounter.
“Look,” says my friend, who has lived here for well over a decade with her Dutch husband. “She’s probably not actually racist. The Dutch do not see the race issue here. It’s shocking to us, but they will tell you, over and again, it’s just soot, it’s just soot. Hold fire on ditching the hairdresser, because who knows what other amenities you’ll lose with that policy.”
Lo and behold, she is right. Officially, Amsterdam is one of the few cities in the Netherlands to make the change from the blackface Zwarte Piet to a “soot-smudged” Piet, and in the Sinterklaas arrival parade we saw Piets of all ethnicities with two or three dark smudges on their faces to depict the soot of “It’s just soot” fame.
But over the course of the Sinterklaas fortnight, I am confronted with the blackface Sinterklaas time and time again across the city. When I get my morning coffee:
When I’m at the deli counter:
At the pharmacy:
In people’s actual houses:
Here, in Amsterdam. Shocking, not least because we British and American immigrants have quickly become accustomed to the Dutch wiping the floor with us in almost every other area. Work/life balance. City-planning. Child-centred education. That brilliant video that did the rounds when Trump was elected, which briefly distracted us all from the impending four-year slide into a nuclear abyss. And then…. this?
When even the British find colonial references shocking, you know you’ve got problems. I haven’t yet met an older Dutch person who denounces the character of Zwarte Piet. And these are nice old people, educated, well-travelled. And always white. He’s black, they say, because he’s sooty, but some people find this racist. It baffles them.
But a friend tells me about a black child at their school who dreads this time of year, because of the Piet chants he will face in the playground. “Give us some sweets, Piet!” Another friend tells me about a time her young daughter pointed at a man in the street and said, “Hey mum! That man looks like Piet!” If you’re wondering what this man looked like, let me give you a hint: he wasn’t covered in soot.
Tensions rise year upon year; there are an increasing number of protests. “Mijn huid en haar zijn geen kostuum”, the banners say: “My skin and hair are not a costume.”
And now the wider world is commenting, some people here are getting more defensive. Extreme examples of this defensiveness come from sectors that most Dutch people would disassociate with; Geert Wilders, the populist far-right Dutch politician, campaigned last year with a Zwarte Piet policy of “mandatory blackface”. But even the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has defended the tradition, by insisting that “his name is Black Pete. I can’t change that.” Although Zwarte Piet’s kidnapping sack has gone, and the whipping twigs have gone, nothing can be done about the appearance. On this matter, the pragmatic Dutch can find no solution. Their hands are tied as they dip their sponges into pots of dark brown and black, shrugging: It’s soot! It’s soot! Doth the Dutch protest too much?
Listen, I get it. It’s hard to admit that moments of your childhood that you really enjoyed were, with the benefit of hindsight, jarringly mismatched with your adult ideals. I went to an all-girls grammar school in the Westcountry, and when I was 12, in 1992, there was a general election. Pretty high on the Labour ticket was the abolition of grammar schools. I’d only been at this school for a year and it had not yet broken my spirit; I was 12, I feared change, and I didn’t want my school to close. Neither did my parents, because they spent a shit-load of money getting me coached to pass the test to get into this school. (Funny thing: not many poor families at this preserve of social mobility and aspiration.) I caught a lift to school with other families most mornings, because our school was on the other side of town and my mum had just had a baby so was in her pyjamas for most of the day, arguing with health visitors about which way up babies were meant to sleep now. (“Look!”, pointing at me. “That one’s still alive!”)
On the morning of the Conservative victory, I rode to school in a car strewn with Conservative blue ribbons, feeling triumphant. I was the over the moon. My school wasn’t going to close. It was a victory parade. It was a sunny day, it was a convertible car (of course), and the billowing blue ribbons flipped up behind us like enormous middle fingers. I have to tell you: it was fun.
I am not a Tory. I’ve never voted Tory. My ideological ideals are so far removed from the current Tory agenda that it fills me with shame that this ever happened. But I cannot deny that, even though I didn’t vote, even though I didn’t tie the ribbons, riding to school triumphantly in a blue-ribbon-strewn convertible on the morning of Friday 10th April 1992 was a pretty fucking Tory thing to do.
The majority of Dutch people might not be racist, but by invoking colonial slavery with a caricature that makes sections of people in the community feel marginalized and mocked, blacking up as Zwarte Piet is a racist thing to do.
Brene Brown, in her celebrated TED talk on shame, says “you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege, and when people start talking about privilege, they get paralysed by shame.” In her research, Brown finds that shame correlates with negative, aggressive behaviour. When we feel ashamed, we batten down the hatches, we become defensive. It’s not racist. It’s just soot. It’s a bit of fun, leave us alone. His name is Black Pete, not Green, or Orange, or Red.
“Empathy,” says Brown, “is the antedote to shame.” When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, the world becomes bigger, and more voices can be heard and understood, such as Samira bin Sharifu’s, in which she tells of her first encounter with blackface Zwarte Piet as a child: “I remember wondering why they were trying to look like my father, and why they were acting so silly. My father was a smart man, a grown-up. These grown men in blackface were acting like misbehaving children.”
But listening empathetically is uncomfortable. It means wading through the sludge of shame before reaching a point where one might consider saying: The racist implications of Zwarte Piet are not how I define myself. It was not my intention to be racist, but I see that it is, and why it is, and for that I am sorry. Let’s just do the soot-smudged thing, people won’t be offended and that English lady doesn’t have to find a new hairdresser.
To a non-Dutch person, Zwarte Piet is frankly shocking to behold, and I’ve been told, over and again, that I just don’t understand the tradition. But you know what? I’m a white, British, liberal lady living in post-Brexit continental Europe who once rode joyously to school in a blue-ribboned Tory-mobile. If there’s one thing I do understand, it’s shame.